Frank Ockenfels 3 is a photographer driven by a curiosity that creates a visual language of kaleidoscopic abundance of imagery and emotion. He has captured portraits of many prominent celebrities, taking the familiar face to a more primal and dark corner of his mind. His use of non-photographic elements, such as collage, has marked him as a unique collaborator of art.
What motivates you to participate in events like “Thirty Years and Counting”?
Inspiration for younger artists often comes from hearing from the experiences of older artists. When asked to do this talk, I was excited. I’ve done lectures about myself quite a bit, probably enough. Carol and I have a unique relationship. I don’t think there’s been any other photographer who has had the same agent for the same amount of time as us. She’s always been supportive of my work. She’s always let me constantly change and grow and do things differently. This is an opportunity to talk about it. It’ won’t be too structured, so we’ll see what comes up and have good conversations. I enjoy getting questions and seeing how they guide conversation and bring up forgotten stories.
What have been the highlights and challenges of your career so far?
Carol pushing me to new opportunities and suggestions, such as when MTV was looking for directors. She is always helping me stretch my wings and giving tremendous suggestions. Just being able to do a lot of different things with her support, whether its her suggestions or helping me orchestrate exhibitions in Amsterdam or Sydney. I’m working on a book, but it’s not simply a book of portraiture, it’s more about my personal journals and collages, things which she has always been supportive of.
Since she’s always been supportive of growing, the challenge has been what comes next. Not everything is successful, but always willing to try approaches we weren’t sure were going to work. When portfolios were becoming the norm years ago and everyone had these leather-bound polished portfolios, I hand made a portfolio on the printer. I made 4 or 5 of them, glued them together myself, and said “let’s try this, it’s different.” She has always been supportive of a different approach. Around a year later, it was the same thing with websites. Do we do what everyone else is doing and be commercially oriented? So, we did a variety of things on the website, which is still constantly changing. We show drawings and journals on the website – people want to see where your brains are and what you are thinking. The growth is a challenge. Are they going to support your changing? I’m lucky with Carol, she wants you to grow and move forward. As a photographer, it’s all about never ending growth, how you choose to use your tools, how you break your tools, and how you use them in the wrong way.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received?
As a portrait photographer who shoots celebrities, Joshua Greene, son of Milton Greene, was an amazing mentor to me. He told me when you’re shooting celebrities, you don’t walk in the door and start praising them. You’re on level playing field and there’s a back and forth. But if you praise them, they know they have you, even if they don’t act on it, there is that air in the room. When you’re shooting, you need to be on a level playing field. When you’re shooting a normal person, you want to bring them up, so they see themselves as worthy of being photographed.
There’s a simplicity of not overdoing it. I like to go into shoots not knowing much about the person. I want to walk in and see what presents to me with the person in front of me. It’s not a portrait of what you think they are, but capturing who they are. Carol is supportive of my approach. I constantly try new lighting, and am building new rigs. Carol will say “you did this, now it’s time to move on.” She is always right when she says it’s time to try something else.
So I like to tell people, don’t overthink it. Don’t walk in the door concerned about satisfying someone. If you are hired for your work and your work is true to your vision then that’s what they want. Don’t worry about what they want too much. Listen to what is being said, but don’t forget why you’re there and what your vision is.
What do you want people to understand about the industry?
Everyone’s a photographer in the true sense of being a photographer nowadays, making pictures to illustrate images and a moment. I think it’s amazing. I wish people knew more about what went into the images they’re looking at, especially the light and the abstract pieces of light. Magazine images tend to use more flat light, they’re terrified to not be pretty pretty. But some of the best pieces have light that cut the darkness. So I wish people knew more about looking at light. That’s what I teach, explaining why you do it, or why you light a person in a certain way. Everyone has different face, so they might need soft light whereas someone else can use hard light.
Did you learn all that through experience?
I was the assistant to Josh Greene, and he used natural light, manipulating it with mirrors and bounce boards. I also worked with Jeff Dunas and he would manufacture pieces of light, and alternate approaches to abstraction with light. So, I would see how far I could push it.
What do you look for in photo studios and locations?
I try to see more than just the room. What’s outside the room? What’s in the hallway? What’s in the stairway? What’s outside? What’s within a block? What’s the natural light? I’m normally controlling light, but a studio with no windows is difficult. The act of having windows or a skylight presents these interesting things or moments connecting you to outside world.
What do you want to share to encourage people to go to the event?
I think it’s going to be fun! It will be a very honest and personal story. Most lectures are about hyping yourself up, but this is much more. It’s about two people who met when we were both generally starting out and finding a connection. Carol saw something in my work, and it’s important for young photographers to find someone who believes in you. The conversation and stories should emphasize that and it should be exciting. It’s a bit of an unusual story, we’ve done it for so long! I was a single man running around NYC when we first started, now I’m married with two teenage sons. And she’s godfather to my son! So, it’s very friendly, very family. I’m lucky to find an agent like her.